The Gift of India
by Sarojini Naidu (India, 1915)
About Sarojini Naidu … Known lovingly as the Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) was a patriot, a poet and a crusader for women’s rights. She lived during the time India was in chains, and the British masters came down heavily on any one writing anything critical of their rule. Incarceration of patriotic writers and confiscation of the press the printed the writings were routine. Sarojini Naidu lived under such a regime. Her heart ached to see the exploitation of India’s wealth, and smothering of Indians’ cries for freedom. She gave vent to her resentment through her writings. Her poems had strong patriotic overtones, but their sheer uniqueness, covert style, and high literary worth perhaps persuaded the British authorities to let them be published for public reading.
Sarojini Naidu came from a privileged family. She studied in University of Madras and later went to Oxford and Cambridge to complete her student career. Undoubtedly, such education honed her literary skills.
In this poem ‘The Gift of India’, she captures the sacrifices of the one million strong Indian army that fought under the British flag in far-off lands like Egypt, Belgium, and Iran. Nearly 70,000 of them fell in the battlefields and an equal number were maimed. She pines for those who did not return home, and bemoans the fact that the colonial authorities gave only perfunctory tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought with commendable valour and grit.
The poem in context.. In the war against the Germans, the British garnered resources from wherever they could lay their hands on. India had plenty of men and materials to offer. There were the Jath and Maratha peasants who were known for their martial traditions. India was a prosperous country then with plenty of farm produce, minerals and metals and a rudimentary road network to move them to the ports.
As many as 10 lakh of India’s rural youth were drafted to the army to be deployed in European, African and Asian theaters. Humungous quantities of wheat, rice, sugar and textiles were procured from India to feed the war machine. So large was the mopping up that not enough farmers were left to do cultivation of lands and prices of goods sky-rocketed.
The Indian soldiers fought valiantly in the battle fields bearing the brunt of German onslaught. No wonder the casualties were high, very high. Thousands perished, and thousands returned home with crippled bodies. Mother India bled.
What made Sarojini sad and resentful was that Mother India got nothing in return. The British eulogized the sacrifices of their own soldiers, but paid only left-handed compliment to the vast number of men who were torn from their farms and families to fight in foreign soils shedding their life and blood. India’s economy was enfeebled by the war, and Indians were impoverished. Yet, the colonial masters gave nothing in return other than some empty platitudes.
The poem …
Is there ought you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
Lo! I have flung to the East and the West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabers of doom.
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France
Mother India generously contributed to the war effort sending its able-bodied robust young men to join the army and fight in far away battlefronts. She gave her grain and gold unflinchingly.
The men went and fought taking on the might of the Germans and its alleys in very cold and hostile conditions. In the face of the enemy shells, they fought valiantly till the last drop of their blood. Many didn’t return. They were gone for good. Mother India wept, vainly.
The British won the war. They felt proud and happy. Mother India had nothing to rejoice from. She nursed her wounds, grieving silently.
For the soldiers who died in the battle fields, their graves were their resting place. Like a mollusc disemboweled of its contents leaves its shells behind, the soldiers’ bodies rotted in their graves leaving their skeletons behind. Like the shells in the beaches, the soldiers’ bodies lay scattered in the battlefields, un-honoured, and un-sung. Just as flowers fall from the tree after a strong gush of wind only to be trampled and mutilated, the fine young fighters from India sent to fight in Flanders (Belgium), distant France, and the Persian shores (Iran) fell in the battlefield with their limbs severed and their bodies gasping for the last breath. No one cared, no one bothered to give these valiant heroes the honour they deserved.
Portion 2 ..
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of victory?
when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,
Remember the blood of my martyred sons!
The poet narrates the anguish and pang that Mother India has to endure on the loss of her martyred sons who fell on those distant infernal battle fields. She waited vainly for all her sons to return. Some did, some didn’t. However, Mother India is proud of her gallant sons who responded to the call of duty so willingly, despite the fact that India was neither responsible for start of the war, nor was in any way party to it. She nonetheless sees that the victory is in the distant horizon. In the midst of so much grief, she feels fleetingly jubilant. When the fire and fury of the War would be over, beagles will fall silent. Life will start afresh with new hope, without the corrosive feelings of hate and prejudice. Peace would prevail, applying a balm to the scars of war. At that time, gratitude would pour in on the people who fought and gave their blood, so that peace could eventually return. Mother India beseeches the colonial masters to generously heap praise and recognition on her young warriors who made victory possible.